How Netanyahu keeps sidelining the Knesset

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Zionist Camp leader Merav Michaeli argues that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's consistent attempts to bypass the Knesset are a dangerous game.

al-monitor Zionist Camp faction chair Merav Michaeli speaks at a faction meeting, March 21, 2016. Photo by Office of Merav Michaeli.

Topics covered

zuhair bahloul, zionist camp, opposition, knesset, israeli politics, isaac herzog, benjamin netanyahu

Apr 13, 2016

“Too often, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu manages to bypass the Knesset. In that sense, he has gravely corrupted Israeli democracy,” said Merav Michaeli, who heads the Zionist Camp’s Knesset faction, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

On March 31, the Knesset recessed for its spring break after an especially turbulent winter session of verbal clashes between Arabs and Jews on the right and left, as well as rivalry within the center-left opposition bloc, where the Zionist Camp is losing support to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. As head of the biggest opposition faction, Michaeli has tried to get complex views across without giving in to populist sentiment. Although faced with a prime minister who is oblivious to the legislature and to the democratic rules of the game, she even managed to maneuver and score a few small victories over Netanyahu’s narrow coalition.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor You have recessed, but the political battles between Arabs and Jews continue. Knesset member Zuhair Bahloul from your faction stirred up quite a storm when he said in an interview with Army Radio [April 7] that the stabber from Hebron was not a terrorist. The prime minister said that his comments were shameful. The left also distanced itself from them. Didn’t he go too far?

Michaeli This is an unfortunate statement because in the end we live in a world of very simplistic divisions, and here we had a man with a knife who intended to kill. In itself I don’t think this was a dramatic remark, but it’s clear there are those who have a vested interest in turning this into a drama, starting with HaBayit HaYehudi and the right wing in general, as well as the media. In essence, I would also like to make it clear that this does not represent the faction and is not its position.

There was another mini drama when he said previously that he’s not a Zionist. Think about it: How can he be a Zionist? It’s ludicrous. Demanding that Zuhair Bahloul be a Zionist is truly a very major misunderstanding. He knowingly joined a Zionist party. He supports Zionism. He talks about Zionism as one of the most important movements of recent centuries, and he means it sincerely, but how can he himself be a Zionist? He is an Arab, born and bred here; he doesn’t have to be a Zionist. A return to Zion is irrelevant for him.

Al-Monitor And what about the Knesset members of the Joint List? How do you explain the fact that they seem to be carrying on like a separate entity in the Knesset and not as part of the left-wing bloc?

Michaeli Of course there’s great radicalization. In general, developments in the media world mean that there are more protests in the political arena and less discourse. This has a bad influence because protests are always more extreme. But this is true for both sides. What the right is doing to Arab society in Israel is horrendous. Not that this justifies nationalistic reactions from the other side, but one has to understand that [Arab-Israelis] are not alone in this. Arab society is under severe assault that threatens basic civil equality, and sadly, one of the reactions is severe radical nationalism. That’s why it’s important to view their behavior as part of the bigger picture. I am horrified that instead of dialogue, there is too much cursing and badmouthing, as was the case with Knesset member Avi Dichter.

Al-Monitor One of the most damaging laws to Arab-Israelis and to democracy was approved during this past session, allowing the suspension of lawmakers who express support for terrorism. As the opposition, did you not fail in letting it go through?

Michaeli What do you mean, fail? Since the Netanyahu era began, the Knesset no longer exists. There’s only the government and the opposition. Because the minute Netanyahu demands total coalition discipline on every issue, big and small, important and unimportant, national and non-national, the Knesset ceases to exist. Knesset members do not see themselves as autonomous to vote their conscience, and this is a question that is never raised because it’s clear that everyone toes the government line. We always had coalition discipline, but it was applied on cardinal issues, on the budget and peace agreements. We used to have a Knesset.

Al-Monitor Nonetheless, you are 59 Knesset members in the opposition and a faction with 24 members — this is power. Are you able to use it?

Michaeli Indeed, on this law we managed to enlist the most votes possible, as we do on many other things. We often lose by only two votes, which is the gap between the size of the coalition and opposition. As the opposition whip I managed to get everyone on board to toe the line and act together. I instituted meetings of the opposition leadership, something that didn’t exist before. In general, we won nine votes, whereas in the two previous Knesset terms, Netanyahu didn’t lose a single vote. This is very dramatic.

On one hand, we are criticized as an opposition for not doing anything; on the other, I prove that we are doing something. Even the bill capping bankers’ pay is basically an achievement of the opposition, because the battle was waged by [Zionist Camp Knesset members] Shelly Yachimovich and [Meretz leader] Zehava Gal-On and by myself before I joined the Knesset. This is part of changing public perceptions.

Al-Monitor The opposition’s greatest victory over Netanyahu was achieved in the Supreme Court, where the natural gas plan was invalidated, not in the Knesset. How do you explain it?

Michaeli This is a big and significant achievement by the opposition, starting with Shelly Yachimovich, through [Zionist Camp member] Eitan Cabel and [Joint List member] Dov Khenin — who hasn’t been given enough credit — and of course by civil society organizations. The Supreme Court stated the obvious, sending the plan back to the Knesset because the prime minister cannot just bypass the Knesset. Too often Netanyahu does manage to bypass the Knesset, and here we succeeded in making things difficult for him. The opposition managed to delay the gas plan for a year even before the court ruling. Netanyahu postponed a Knesset vote twice because he didn’t have a majority. We enlisted people, brought them back from overseas [to vote]. But in the end we are the minority. They are the majority. A tiny, tiny majority, but a majority.

Al-Monitor Maybe you failed because you’re not united as the opposition?

Michaeli I simply disagree. Even at its strongest, the opposition is still 59. Whenever we stood united we had 59 votes. That’s the best we can do. It’s true that we’re an eclectic opposition, with [right-wing lawmaker Avigdor] Liberman and [centrist] Lapid and the Arabs. It’s hard to make it work and impossible to reach a unified stand on each and every issue, but we were successful more often than not.

Al-Monitor But in the long run, what people remember is the ugly infighting between [Zionist Camp members] Erel Margalit and Tzipi Livni. It looks like you haven’t become one unified faction. What do you think?

Michaeli I actually disagree with you. The incident itself was uncalled for. And it’s simply not done, to film a closed-door meeting. Disagreements are legitimate. I think it backfired and the instigator of the dispute lost from it more than he gained. As a faction, there’s good work being done and there are certainly not two factions [a reference to the Zionist Camp, composed of Labor and Hatnua]. Within the faction, not much was left of this fight. Unfortunately, on the outside it damaged the party and that’s really too bad.

Al-Monitor Is the investigation of [Zionist Camp leader Isaac] Herzog also damaging?

Michaeli This is a very stressful and uncomfortable feeling. I have faith in Herzog; I have faith in his honesty, just as I have faith in the legal system, and there’s nothing we can do but wait. We have to wait for the truth to come to light as quickly as possible.

I can but hope. Of course this is not fun and I hope it will be cleared up effectively as fast as possible. I have spoken to him and he says he’s calm and sure things will be cleared up. There’s no doubt that being tied with [Interior Minister Aryeh] Deri in the media is bad.

Al-Monitor While you are busy infighting, Yair Lapid is gaining in the polls at your expense, to the extent that he seems to be the head of the opposition. How does that affect you?

Michaeli People don’t think he is chairman of the opposition. The media likes to say he is head of the opposition. This is a world of imagery, but it’s nonsense. [Former President] Shimon Peres always used to say, "Polls are like perfume [nice to smell, dangerous to swallow]." Let’s remember what happened to Yair Lapid — he got 19 Knesset seats and came crashing down with them, not just electorate-wise, but also regarding the content he offers. What did he do with those 19 seats? What did he achieve for his middle class voters? I don’t think this will last long, because in the end there’s no substance there. Yair Lapid stands for nothing, but it doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to do what needs to be done in order to convince the Israeli public to trust us.

Al-Monitor So far, with no luck. The right has more success in convincing the public, don't you think?

Michaeli:  The Israeli public has been exposed for many years to very serious right-wing incitement, both against the Arabs but mostly against left-wingers. This is no longer just the radical right. First of all, the prime minister continues with the same line that started in 1994 against [late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin. It’s the same incitement. They have nothing to offer, just incitement. We talk about peace and security and a welfare state, democracy, equal rights and individual liberties, while they believe in discrimination as a system to compensate for the rising cost of living and lack of security on the streets. They don’t offer an alternative. They only call us traitors. When you keep saying for 20 years, “They are traitors, they hate you. They are against the state and only want what’s best for the Arabs,” and when things are tough in terms of the economy and of security and there’s someone to blame, then people are persuaded. But I‘m sure this will stop working at some point. One day people will realize they have nothing to eat, that this way doesn’t work and that they have to try something else.

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